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The PCC elections – a triumph of the bland leading the ignorant

The PCC elections – a triumph of the bland leading the ignorant

🕔14.Nov 2012

English: UK Police Chief Constable rank markings

After my blog last week, I hadn’t intended to write again about Thursday’s Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections. But then came the intervention of Sir Hugh Orde, President of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), about the “inevitable tension” that would exist between PCCs and chief constables. Almost without exception in the media I came across, these two words led or headlined the story, and were invariably reported as a “warning” and as implied disapproval.

Reading what Sir Hugh actually said, however, two things became apparent. First, he used the ‘inevitable tension’ phrase primarily about potentially conflicting national and local policing priorities, and how, for instance, a national situation such as last summer’s riots might be dealt with, requiring as it did the co-operation of several neighbouring police forces.

Second, he emphasised that, if his observations were to be taken as a warning, it was by no means a negative one: “There will be tension; that is a good thing. There should always be tension between those who hold us to account and those who deliver. Frankly, one of my concerns is that you could see a situation where the relationship is too close. As a one-to-one relationship it could get too close, and frankly that is not right either.” He’d doubtless be reassured to know that I agree.

That unhealthy closeness or cosiness was one of the perceived weaknesses of the unelected and largely invisible police authorities that the PCCs will replace, which is one reason why I personally find it disappointing that the relevant experience of a majority of our seven candidates is either as police officers or prominent members of the West Midlands Police Authority.

Which brings us once again to the multi-layered incompetence with which this whole major reform has been handled – by a Coalition Government for the bigger part of which elected police commissioners were supposed to be a flagship policy. The whole thing has been so shambolic that it’s hard to summarise, but it occurred to me that the initials ID offered a possible peg. They can stand, of course, for myriad diverse phenomena: the international dateline, infectious diseases, intestinal distress. I was thinking, though, of Intelligent Design – questionable; Information Deficiency – yes, in spades; and Identification Data – overall disappointing. Let me elaborate.

First, Intelligent Design. I don’t mean it in the creationists’ sense of whether or not a system of police accountability based on directly elected commissioners is the product of some supernatural power; merely, in the absence of any evidence from testing, has or hasn’t it been thought through? The introduction of some element of democracy into a largely unaccountable institution with a questionable record of effectiveness must be good. Personally, I’d have preferred elected police authorities, rather than individuals, but I can see the case for a high-profile, widely recognised commissioner and would be prepared, like Sir Hugh Orde, to suck it and see – provided someone took the trouble to explain it to me.

But no one did. The Information Deficiency has been deplorable, and its consequences threaten to undermine the whole project. Last month’s Venezuelan elections were preceded by hundreds of ferias electorales (electoral fairs) across the country – information booths in plazas, shopping malls, metro stations and other public places, visited by hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans, who could test out the electronic voting machines, the ballot paper verification trail, the biometric fingerprint voter identification, the security checks, and get whatever information about the election they needed.

Here, we were expected to participate in the launch of a completely untested institutional innovation, voting in an unfamiliar electoral system for mostly unknown candidates, yet until the start of the campaign period itself, we received from the Government virtually no public information at all.

The BBC, despite its other distractions, tried to plug the gap – with an early Commissioner job spec back in September, supplemented since by a Q & A about the elections, a pretty graphic about the new structure, a picture of a ballot paper, plus lists and brief details of all candidates – as long, of course, as you can access the internet.

The Home Office’s ‘Choose my PCC’ website was slower off the mark and experienced difficulties with its telephone helpline for those among the 7 million internet-less voters enthusiastic enough to attempt to find out at least their candidates’ names. The bigger issue, though, was why they were having to telephone at all. To which the answer appears to be that Ministers decided early on that, unlike prospective MPs, mayors and councillors, PCC candidates would not be permitted a free mailshot, and then greatly exaggerated the cost of doing so in order to to make it appear unjustifiably expensive.

Which brings us to candidate Identification Data. You might think that, deprived of the free mailshot, candidates would want to make the absolute most of the opportunities they did have to publicise themselves, their qualifications, and above all their policing policy interests and priorities – the more so, given the first hand policing experience that several of them have. If so, my guess is that, with few exceptions, you’d be rather disappointed.

In the Home Office’s 18-page leaflet, Choose my PCC: Candidates for the West Midlands Police Force Area, each candidate has two smallish pages on which to describe themselves and the distinctive views they presumably hope will persuade us to vote for them, rather than for their rivals. Well, the good news is that they can’t be accused either of wild-eyed extremism or of overselling themselves. The bad news is the high level of blandness and interchangeability.

If any of the 191 PCC candidates in England and Wales WEREN’T in favour of keeping or increasing bobbies on the beat, slashing red tape, and fighting the cuts, it might be worth mentioning; for the rest, one wonders.  A useful test to apply to all politicians’ pledges is that of reversibility: if the opposite of the statement or pledge is clearly ludicrous, it’s not worth saying. Decide for yourself: are any of the following, drawn from the candidates’ pages in the Home Office leaflet, worth the space they take up?

• “I will stand up for the public and make sure crime goes down.” Reversed: I will ignore the public and make sure crime goes up – ludicrous.
• “I will work with the Chief Constable to balance the books and purchase essential, up-to-date equipment.” Reversed: I will work with the Chief Constable to bankrupt the police authority and purchase useless, out-of-date equipment.
• “I will take policing forwards not backwards; put people first, instead of bureaucracy.” Reversed – I will take policing backwards, not forwards; put bureaucracy first, ahead of people.
• “The PCC should be a responsible champion of public opinion. Decisions should be driven by consultation, not political dogma.” Reversed: The PCC should ignore public opinion. Decisions should driven by political dogma, not consultation.

To be fair, there have, during the campaign, been examples from several candidates of both substantive and genuinely personal commitments, but really not many that made it into these pages, and that might have made the voter’s choice a little easier. Perhaps the greatest boost to that cause, though, would have been the presence of a final ID – some Independent Democrats known widely to the electorate and with a realistic chance of getting elected. Their almost complete absence is one of the most serious outcomes of the Government’s ham-fisted handling of this currently floundering reform.

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